How to learn conjugation: the Kaqchikel edition II

…and after all of that, now we can conjugate both consonant-initial AND vowel-initial intransitive verbs IN THE FIRST PERSON SINGULAR PRESENT TENSE ONLY. Persistence, persistence!

Want to learn how to conjugate verbs in French? No problem–you can look them up lots of places on line, you can buy a book on the topic at pretty much any train station in France, and the French Verb Forms app will give you many happy hours of practice. (Seriously, I use it often.)

Want to learn to conjugate verbs in a less-commonly-studied language? Good fucking luck. You have two basic options:

  1. Get a “FLAS.” Foreign Language Area Studies fellowships fund students to do intensive courses in languages that the US has a national interest in having Americans know how to speak. (Seriously, it’s not a coincidence that they used to be called National Defense Foreign Language fellowships.) You either have the wonderful luck to be at a university that offers courses in your (relatively) obscure language of choice, or you snag a $2,500 summer grant to go take an intensive course somewhere. (Indiana University Bloomington is currently offering FLAS language courses in Akan, Bosnian, Czech, Dari, Estonian, Finnish, Georgian, Hungarian… You get the picture.)
  2. Figure it all out for yourself.

Option #2, “figure it all out for yourself,” is the one that you pick if you are a bald old fat fuck such as myself who is not going to be getting a FLAS summer fellowship any time soon. Option #2 begins with figuring out what the characteristics of verbs are in your language of choice, such that those characteristics might affect how you go about learning to conjugate them. We worked our way through this in a previous post. I’ll sum up the outcome like this:

The main things that differentiate amongst verbs in Kaqchikel are

  1. Whether they are transitive, or intransitive
  2. Whether they began with a consonant, or with a vowel

Last time we worked on consonant-initial intransitive verbs. This time, we’ll move on to vowel-initial intransitive verbs. First thing we need: a list of such verbs. To put one together, we’ll go through the glossary at the end of the only English-based Kaqchikel textbook that I know of: ¿La Ütz Awäch?, by R. McKenna Brown, Judith M. Maxwell, Walter E. Little, and Angelika Bauer.

I am simplifying the Kaqchikel transitivity situation quite a bit. This will not shock Americanists (linguists who work on the indigenous languages of the Americas).

-achik’to dream
-ach’ixïnto sneeze
-ajanto brush, to sculpt
-ajilanto count
-ajinto be Ving (a progressive)
-ak’walanto procreate
-aläx peto be born, to sprout
-animäjto run from, to flee
-animajinto escape, to flee
-aninto run
-aponto arrive there
-aq’ab’anto rise before dawn

All of these verbs begin with -a because I started at the beginning of the glossary, and it happens to be in alphabetical order. But, the observant reader will also have noted that many of these verbs end with n. Is this significant? Probably, but I don’t yet know why.

Want to know how to pronounce these verbs? See this post on my adventures in learning the pronunciation of Kaqchikel consonants.

OK, we’ve got some vowel-initial verbs, and we did consonant-initial ones last time, so let’s compare them. We’ll start with the first person singular of the present tense. Last time we learned the prefix yi- for consonant-initial vowels; for vowel-initial ones, we instead use yin-. Let’s look at examples of them side by side, and then we’ll practice the vowel-initial variant using the same technique that we learned last time. Remember that you will look at the example, then cover the second column of the table and work your way down it row by row, doing whatever the example showed you to do.

-sik’in (to read)yisik’in-aq’ab’an (rise before dawn)yinaq’ab’an
-tzijon (to talk)yitzijon-achik’ (to dream)yinachik’
-tz’ib’an (to write)yitz’ib’an-ach’ixïn (to sneeze)yinach’ixïn
-samäj (to work)yisamäj-ajilan (to count)yinajilan
-wa’ (to eat)yiwa’-anin (to run)yinanin
-b’iyin (to walk)yib’iyin-apon (to arrive there)yinapon
Example: -oq’ (to cry)yinoq’
-achik’ (to dream)yinachik’
-ach’ixïn (to sneeze)yinach’ixïn
-ajilan (to count)yinajilan
-anin (to run)yinanin
-apon (to arrive there)yinapon
-aq’ab’an (to rise before dawn)yinaq’ab’an

Following the same strategy that we learned last time, we will now alternate between the two of them…

Example: -wäryiwär
b’ixan (to sing)yib’ixan
-ach’ixïn (to sneeze)yinach’ixïn
-kemon (to weave)yikemon
-atin (to bathe)yinatin
-wa’ (to eat)yiwa’

…and then mix them randomly:

Example: -oq’ (to cry)yinoq’
-samäj (to work)yisamäj
-tz’ib’an (to write)yitz’ib’an
-atin (to bathe)yinatin
-kemon (to weave)yikemon
-aq’ab’an (to rise before dawn)yinaq’ab’an
-ach’ixïn (to sneeze)yinach’ixïn

…and after all of that, now we can conjugate both consonant-initial AND vowel-initial intransitive verbs IN THE FIRST PERSON SINGULAR PRESENT TENSE ONLY. Persistence, persistence!

The picture at the top of this page is of a Kaqchikel singer I like a lot named Sara Curruchich. You can buy her stuff on Apple Music, and I’m sure elsewhere, as well. Picture source: No English or French notes today, but here is one of her songs–I’ll post the words in Kaqchikel and in Spanish below.


xub’ij ri wati’t’ chuwe’: (Mi abuela me dijo:)

Noya, at achiel, at achi’el ri ruwächulew (Sos como la madre tierra)

at achi’el ri ruwächulew (Sí, como la tierra)


Ri niya’on riquchuq’a (Quien nos da fuerza, valentía)

Ri niya’on rutz’intz’ojil ri qak’aslem (quien alumbra nuestra vida)

Ri qanaoj, chuqa k’a ri qab’ey (siembra pensamientos, sabidurías y los caminos plurales)

Ri niya’on ri ya’, ri kaq’ïq’, ri q’aq’ (Como agua, viento y fuego)

At keri’ rat wal (así sos)

At keri’ rat wal (“Así, así sos) nïm riaq’ij wal (Es inmenso e importante tu existir”)

Xcha’ ri watit pa jun wachik’ (Dijo mi abuela en mis sueños)

Man junb’ey xtnumestaj ta (Nunca olvidaré su palabra)

Jantape’ k’o pa nuk’u’x re (Se han aferrado a mi corazón)


Ri niya’on riquchuq’a (Quien nos da fuerza, valentía)

Ri niya’on rutz’intz’ojil ri qak’aslem (quien alumbra nuestra vida)

Ri qanaoj, chuqa k’a ri qab’ey (siembra pensamientos, sabidurías y los caminos plurales)

Ri niya’on ri ya’, ri kaq’ïq’, ri q’aq’ (Como agua, viento y fuego)

At keri’ rat wal (así sos)

Cada paso que doy

Me acerca a mis hermanas

A la igualdad soñada

Merecida y trabajada

Cada paso que doy

Deja una huella sutil

Un camino que puede seguir

Un destino


Ri niya’on riquchuq’a (Quien nos da fuerza, valentía)

Ri niya’on rutz’intz’ojil ri qak’aslem (quien alumbra nuestra vida)

Ri qanaoj, chuqa k’a ri qab’ey (siembra pensamientos, sabidurías y los caminos plurales)

Ri niya’on ri ya’, ri kaq’ïq’, ri q’aq’ (Como agua, viento y fuego)

At keri’ rat wal (así sos)

K’aslem (Vida)

A Cada paso que das

How to learn conjugation: the Kaqchikel edition

With commonly-studied languages, you can find books with page after page of verb conjugations. But, if you are trying to learn a less-commonly-studied language, you will need to put those together yourself.

Learning verb conjugations in any language requires memorization, practice, and more memorization. With commonly-studied languages, you can find books with page after page of verb conjugations; but, if you are trying to learn a less-commonly-studied language, you will need to put those together yourself. The process of practicing those conjugations is the same, though. I will show you a system here that I picked up from the textbook Português Contemporaneo, by Maria Abreu and Cléo Rameh.

Kaqchikel is spoken in Guatemala, in the purple-colored region at the lower left of the map. Map source: online Kaqchikel Dictionary Project.

Being a big believer in writing about what you don’t know, I will illustrate the process with Kaqchikel, a Mayan language spoken by 400,00–500,000 people in the western highlands of Guatemala. There is an excellent textbook on Kaqchikel, called ¿La ütz awäch?, by R. McKenna Brown, Judith Maxwell, Walter Little, and Angelika Bauer. Other didactic materials are hard to come by outside of Guatemala, though–and in particular, there is no 501 Kaqchikel Verbs. (Fat old fucks such as myself grew up using books of verb conjugations with the standard title X01 [language name] verbs, where X is typically a 2 or a 5–for example, 501 French Verbs. They were published by a company called Barron’s. Still are, although I wouldn’t swear that they sell very many copies these days.) Hence: this post. Ready? Let’s do this!

Step One: Figure out what categories of verbs exist.

In Kaqchikel, that will be the following (at least to a first approximation):

  • Transitive verbs versus intransitive verbs
  • Verbs that start with consonants versus verbs that start with vowels

This is a very language-specific thing. Autrement dit: you have to do this for every language. In Spanish, the classes would be different:

  • Verbs that end with -ar in the infinitive, versus ones that end with -er and ones that end with -ir
  • Verbs that are regular in the tense that you’re learning, versus verbs that are irregular in that tense

In French, there would be so many categories that if a student working on an undescribed language told me that “their” language worked that way, I would tell them to go away and come back when they could prove it, ’cause languages like French just are not all that plausible. (The only similar one that I can think of is Dinka–1.3 million speakers in Sudan and South Sudan.)

Back to Kaqchikel… We’ll start with the intransitive verbs. (Left to my own devices, I prefer to start with transitive verbs, but the textbook that I’m using starts with the intransitives, and I’m gonna bet that the people who wrote the textbook known a hell of a lot more about how to learn Kaqchikel than I do.) The other thing that matters to us today is whether the verb starts with a consonant or with a vowel, and here I genuinely have no preferences, so we’ll start with the verbs that begin with consonants, just like the textbook does.)

Step Two: Pick a “person.”

I’m gonna start with the first person singular, i.e. “I,” because I know that that’s what my teacher will ask me about first. I am actually a fan of the third-person singular, i.e. “he/she/it,” when (trying to) learn a language where that’s a regular one. (The third person singular is not necessarily regular in any commonly understood sense of that word. It’s not difficult to find languages with over a dozen forms for the third person singular. Swahili (50-100 million speakers in East Africa–Swahili is so widely used as a lingua franca that it is difficult to know who to count as a speaker) is a common one, and has about 15, plus some more for plurals.)

So, the first-person singular of consonant-initial intransitive verbs: the marker is the prefix yi-. To practice it, I will put together a table like the following. The first row gives an example of what I need to do. You read it like this: when prompted with the verb wär, which means ‘sleep,’ add rïn yi- to it to make rïn yiwär, ‘I sleep.’ Then I have six repetitions. For each one, I cover up the answer, then do the thing, then uncover the answer to check whether I got it write. (Ummmm: right. Damn homophones…) Ready? Let’s do this shit!

Example: wär (sleep)rïn yiwär
xajon (dance)rïn yixajon
b’e (go)rïn yib’e
tz’iban (write)rïn yitz’iban
tzijon (to talk)rïn yitzijon
käm (to die)rïn yikäm
k’ask’o’ (to recover from an illness)rïn yik’ask’o’

You see the system? Now I’ll try the second-person singular, i.e. “you.” This time, we’re going to add rat ya-.

Example: wärrat yawär
xajonrat yaxajon
b’erat yab’e
tz’ibanrat yatz’iban
tzijonrat yatzijon
kämrat yakäm
k’ask’o’rat yak’ask’o’
Second person singular present tense, vowel-initial intransitive verbs

Now it’s time to mix the two together:

rïn/wärrïn yiwär
rïn/b’e (go)rïn yi’b’e
rat/b’e (go)rat ya’b’e
rïn/tzijon (talk)rïn yitzijon
rat/tz’ib’an (write)rat yatz’ib’an
rïn/käm (die)rïn yikäm
rat/k’ask’o’ (recover from an illness)rat yak’ask’o’

…and, then we add in the third-person singular, and we’re done for the day–plurals can wait until tomorrow. If you don’t want to slog through those with me, I’ll just point you towards these videos on the conjugation of intransitive verbs in Kaqchikel–if you do want to do some slogging, page down past the video links!

Videos about intransitive verb conjugation in Kaqchikel:

Videos about intransitive verb conjugation in Kaqchikel:

The picture at the top of this post shows eight Kaqchikel women from the village of San Marcos La Laguna, in the Lake Atitlán region. They were recipients of a micro-loan that enabled them to go into business selling the fabric that they make at home. Their clothes are the everyday wear of Kaqchikel women in that area. Picture source: here.

How computational linguists think about birds

Ask A Computational Linguist: Do “talking” birds have a catalogue of phonemes that they can and can’t (or do and don’t) say?


While listening to our budgie, Tucker, declaim last night, I realized that although he parrots English, he doesn’t say any words with “th.”
Do similarly verbal species, like African grays, have a catalogue of phonemes that they can and can’t (or do and don’t) say?

BTW, I watched a cute video on YouTube of a budgie from Japan. It’s immediately clear that he’s parroting Japanese, not English, just from the sounds. You could probably tell me why.


In lieu of my normal English notes, I have added links to the definitions of the various and sundry low-frequency words in this post.


Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any reason that a “verbal” bird would be unable to produce any sound.  My recollection from grad school is that their mechanism of “talking” works very much like that of a speaker, so within the limits of engineering, I can’t think of any limits.  Two questions come to mind for me:

1. Perception on the part of the parrot: to reproduce something, they presumably need to be able to hear it, which moves the area of discussion from the presence or absence of productive capabilities to the question of the presence or absence of perceptual abilities. Especially relevant in that th-sounds are of pretty low amplitude, so they fall into the category of sounds that you might be unlikely to be able to perceive, if you indeed had limits on perception, be they related to the anatomy of your ears or to what your brain does to process sounds.
2. Perception on the part of the human: it is within the realm of possibility that the bird is making the sound in question, but that the humans in the room aren’t hearing it.  
Finally: here is a delightful paper on mynahs.  More specifically: on one mynah, which points you toward my skepticism about the general state of research on verbal birds. 


Some relevant videos from Jeff:

A budgie speaking Japanese

One speaking Russian

A collection of similar videos for miscellaneous languages

Incidentally, in A budgie speaking Japanese… One speaking Russian, the “one” is an instance of what is called “one anaphora.”

I’ll shut up now.

The picture at the top of this post shows the location of the syrinx, the organ that “talking” birds use to produce their vocalizations. It is from this blog post on the Those with Pycnofibres blog.

Stupid questions, the Paris Métro, and some vocabulary

Yes, Virginia, there IS such a thing as a stupid question.

To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me. (See the English notes below for an explanation of the various and sundry linguistic oddities in that sentence.) I have trained myself to spend very little time on social media, and now that my native land no longer has a president who does not seem to be clear on the facts that Australia is our friend but Russia isn’t, and has complete and sole control over the world’s largest supply of nuclear weapons, I typically don’t check the newspapers more than twice a day. Quora, though–it can suck me down rabbit holes for hours. It lets people pose questions. Anyone. On anything. Anything. And anyone who feels like answering, can.


A common saying in English: there’s no such thing as a stupid question. When do people say it? When other people start questions with something like “this is a stupid question, but…” …followed by a question. There’s certainly some truth to that. In fact, asking “stupid” questions was the only way that I survived graduate school. Graduate students tend to be terrified to ask any question that they fear might reveal that they don’t know everything. But, since I am covered with tattoos (not unusual for young folks these days, but very unusual for people of my advanced age), I go through life on the assumption that everybody assumes I’m stupid anyway, so why not ask questions? As one of my professors said to me in a very short note that accompanied my A- grade in Syntax 102, which was much higher than I actually deserved: You asked the questions that other people were afraid to ask.

So, yeah: you, Dear Reader, are smart, and if you have a question, other people around you do, too. They won’t think that you’re stupid if you ask it–they might very well thank you for asking it.


So, yeah: the “no such thing as a stupid question” claim is not totally without merit. Absolutes are not often correct, and “no such thing” is most definitely an absolute. My personal candidate for questions that truly are stupid would be questions that assume something that is completely wrong, without any apparent awareness of the assumption. Case in point: this question that I ran across on Quora today…

Why are people allowed to pee in the Paris Metro? It always stinks.

Source: some dumbass on Quora

In fact, the Paris metro does not always stink. But, more pertinently: people are not allowed to pee on the Paris metro. Responses to this kind of stupid question should begin by countering the false assumption, as does this one:

People are not allowed to pee in the Paris Metro. If you see someone peeing there, it is either someone who is living there because they are homeless, or (MUCH less commonly), someone who is very drunk.

This blog post will tell you a bit about the smells of Paris, but before you go read it, think about this: people do not pee in random places in metro stations. Homeless people are careful to pee in the gutters that run along the bottom of the walls to keep water from building up on the “quais” (I don’t know the English word—the platform, maybe?) during wet weather. If you see someone peeing in the stairs or someplace stupid like that, they’re drunk, not homeless.

Source: some dumbass on Quora

…and with that rant off my chest, it’s time to step outside with a cup of coffee to enjoy a fine American tobacco product and watch the lizards frolic, ’cause Louisiana. But, first: English notes!


English notes

To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me.

cash cow: something that produces a lot of income very reliably.

to make a mint: to make a lot of money. A mint is a place where money is (physically) produced. Where bills are printed, where coins are struck. (Now there’s an obscure lexical item for ya!) The expression has some weird behaviors related to the verb to make, but before we get to them, let’s see its basic use:

  • Hey now, that film was game-changing. Do you realise how many genuinely terrible found footage films we would probably have been denied if Blair Witch hadn’t come out of nowhere and made a mint? Source: this tweet
  • My sister, a former rare book dealer, made a MINT selling new retirees bulk stock to open the used bookstore of their dreams in Vermont. They’d last 6-18 months… Source: this tweet
  • when this dude retires, he’s gonna make a mint doing sports talk in pittsburgh. i don’t mean that as a compliment. Source: this tweet.

In the last two examples, we see that you can specify what was done to make the money: selling new retirees bulk stock to open the used bookstore of their dreams in Vermont, doing sports talk in Pittsburgh.

There is another way to specify what caused that money to be made. In this case, you will use something that is a noun (or close to one), introduced by off of, or just off:

  • My paternal grandfather made a lot of money off of attractive young women. (True–family scandal.)
  • I made no money at all off of the sale of my first house. (Sadly, also true.)
  • You can’t make money off dreams. (Not true.)

So, now we go back to the first sentence of this blog post: To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me. Clear now?


The notions of cash cows and of making money off of things reminds me of this vignette from Jacque Prévert’s epic poem Encore une fois sur le fleuve and its “gros vieux monsieur qui a fait une misérable fortune dans les beurres et dans les œufs”:

Et la Seine continue son chemin

et passe sous le pont Saint-Michel

d’où l’on peut voir de loin

l’archange et le démon et le bassin

avec qui passent devant eux

une vieille faiseuse d’anges un boy-scout malheureux

et un triste et gros vieux monsieur qui a fait une misérable fortune dans les beurres et dans les œufs
Et celui-là s’avance d’un pas lent vers la Seine en regardant les tours de Notre-Dame
Et cependant

ni l’église ni le fleuve ne l’intéressent mais seulement la vieille boîte d’un bouquiniste
Et il s’arrête figé et fasciné devant l’image d’une petite fille couverte de papier glacé

Elle est en tablier noir et son tablier est relevé une religieuse aux yeux cernés la fouette

Et la cornette de la sœur est aussi blanche que les dessous de la fillette
Mais comme le bouquiniste regarde le vieux monsieur congestionné celui-ci gêné détourne les yeux et laissant là le pauvre livre obscène

jette un coup d’oeil innocent détaché

vers l’autre rive de la Seine

The photo of Jacques Prévert at the top of this post is from 1977, and is one of the last. It is copyrighted by Agence France Presse. I found it here:

Pictures worth a thousand definitions

Google Images is not the *best* thing to happen to language learning, but it’s pretty fucking good sometimes.

Google Images is not the best thing to happen to language learning, but it’s pretty fucking good sometimes. Case in point: today I wanted to know what joufflu means in French. I might forget the definition I read, but I won’t soon forget the pictures that Google Images gave me when I searched for it:

Le Président, joufflu aux pommettes rosées, l’air austère, me regarde dans les yeux sans laisser paraître aucun sentiment.

Henri Charrière, Papillon

I wanted to check my guess that a cuistot is closer to a short-order cook than to a chef–Google Images pretty much confirmed it:

Picture source:

You’re confused because WordReference says that a flingue is a gun, but the Frenchies around you keep using it to refer to pistols? Google Images will straighten you out–turns out WordReference doesn’t quite have it right this time:

Is, as they say, a picture worth a thousand words? As a scientist, I’m always skeptical of exact numbers, but it’s certainly worth a lot of definitions…

English notes

Joufflu is a noun–there’s also a feminine form, joufflue. According to my Quillet (a damn nice dictionary, by the way), it’s a person qui a les joues pleines. As far as I know, there is no equivalent noun in English. We would use the adjective chubby-cheeked if we didn’t mean anything bad by it, and jowly, from the noun jowl, if we did.

Now, I know what you’re about to ask: does the noun jowl come from joue (French for “cheek”)? I mean, we stole, like, 80% of our vocabulary from French (the percentage varies depending on whether you’re talking about the contents of a good dictionary or the (relatively) common vocabulary of everyday life–we rarely escape from Zipf’s Law), so why not this word, looking as much like joue as it does?

Merriam-Webster says otherwise. It’s helpful here to know that the noun jowl has multiple, but related, meanings. Here’s the most common one:

usually slack flesh (such as a dewlap, wattle, or the pendulous part of a double chin) associated with the cheeks, lower jaw, or throat

Merriam-Webster entry 1

Note that it includes the cheeks–that’s why it comes to mind for me in this context–but, other parts, too. Most pertinent to the current question: the throat. For this specific meaning, Merriam-Webster postulates the following etymology:

alteration of Middle English cholle, probably from Old English ceole throat

Merriam-Webster, again

Where it gets surprising to me is that the second entry has a different etymology for a related, but different, sense. Here’s entry 2 for jowl:

1a: CHEEK sense 1

b: the cheek meat of a hog

2a: JAW especiallyMANDIBLE

b: one of the lateral halves of the mandible

more Merriam-Webster

…and its etymology as per Merriam-Webster:

alteration of Middle English chavel, from Old English ceafl; akin to Middle High German kivel jaw, Avestan zafar- mouth

…and yet again, Merriam-Webster

Two distinct etymologies for two pretty clearly related senses of the same word? Well: we are occasionally visited here by an actual lexicologist, and a good one (with whom I had the pleasure of having a nice cup of coffee a couple weeks ago, but that’s another story). See the comments below for his response (I hope)!

Who comes to mind for me when I think of the word “jowly:” Richard Nixon. He used to be thought of as the worst American president EVER–his much-later successor Trump has certainly restored Nixon’s reputation… Picture source:

…and one more thing, and I’ll shut up. Here’s a recording of Henri Charrière, author of the quote that I gave you above for the word joufflu. Charming Ardèche accent (I think it’s ardèchois–Phil d’Ange?):

Luis de Lión’s “El enfermo,” and our responsibilities

El enfermo

si tus labios en verdad fueran de azúcar

y no solamente dulces,

hace años que habría muerto…

Tú sabes que soy diabético!

Luis de Lión, Poemas del volcán de fuego

if your lips really were made of sugar

and not just sweet,

I would have died years ago.

you know that I’m diabetic!

Attempt at translation by me

I like this little poem by Luis de Lión. Quite a bit, actually. Why? And is it even a poem, per se?

Matthew Zapruder, in his very readable book Why Poetry, maintains that the important question is less “is this a poem?” than “what makes something poetic?” I can dig it–personally, I usually find questions less interesting than the meta-question “How could I know the answer, one way or the other?”

One of his answers is that poeticalness (not sure that’s a word, but spell-correct isn’t hating it) comes from doing the unexpected with language; that when you experience something as poetic, per se, you are reacting to that unexpectedness.

One of the primary sources of that unexpectedness is the combination of words that you would not normally expect to go together. A favorite example, from Daniela Gîfu’s Ianuar:

înariparea îngerească

a speranței

Daniela Gîfu, from her poem Ianuar

the angelic wrath

of hope

My feeble attempt (or perhaps Google Translate’s) at a translation

Hope being wrathful? Wrath that is angelic? Completely unexpected–and my favorite lines of the poem.

The unexpectedness of the language of a poem does not have to come from its vocabulary; unexpected mixes of style can do it, as well. And that’s how I read de Lión’s poem. When you start out with this very artistic language:

si tus labios en verdad fueran de azúcar

y no solamente dulces,

hace años que habría muerto…

…which very much reminds me of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130, first four lines

…and with the poem’s self-consciously (to me, at any rate) poetic beginning, the last thing I would expect is the very spoken-language line that follows:

¡Tú sabes que soy diabético!

There is a soft spot in my heart for poets who kick ass. Not in the sense of poètes qui déchirent, who are good poets, but in the sense of poets who will be violent when that is what is required to protect good and defeat evil. Henry Reed, Guillaume Apollinaire, Randall Jarrell, … You’ve read all of their poetry here. Luis de Léon was such a man. From Wikipedia:

Luis de Lión, born José Luis de León Díaz (August 19, 1939 – June 6, 1984) was a Guatemalan writer kidnapped on May 15, 1984 by elements of Guatemalan Army intelligence, and henceforth “disappeared“. His posthumous novel, El tiempo principia en Xibalbá (Time Commences in Xibalbá) is considered an important work in modern Central American literature.[1]

Born into a Kaqchikel Maya family, his father’s work as a policeman during the rule of dictator Jorge Ubico enabled him to receive basic education. He completed his studies in Guatemala City, graduating with a teaching certification in primary education.[1]

Being of Kaqchikel origin, he belonged to an ethnic group that was subject to horrible depradations by the government and by right-wing civilian militia groups. The a priori vulnerability of being Kaqchikel did not stop him from acting. I haven’t come across any evidence–or even the suggestion–that de Lión ever took up arms. (I did read the Spanish-language Wikipedia entry on him, and found nothing there.) I suggest that he did something more courageous: unarmed, he very openly opposed a murderous dictatorship. Wikipedia again:

He worked as a teacher in various places in Guatemala until he was made a professor of literature at Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala. As a leader of the communist Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (“Guatemalan Workers’ Party”), he promoted universal access to quality education as a means to improve the quality of life of Guatemalan people. In San Juan del Obispo, the village near Antigua Guatemala where he was born, he founded a small library in which he taught literacy to his former neighbors.

This was during the brutal Guatemalan civil war of 1960-1996. (Your dates may vary.) From Wikipedia:

On May 15, 1984, while he was driving to work in the Centro Histórico [es] of Guatemala City, a group of armed plainclothes men forced him into an unmarked car. He joined the ranks of more than 30,000 citizens “disappeared” by the military rulers of Guatemala during the 1980s as part of the Guatemalan Civil War. Nothing was known of his fate until 1999, when his name appeared in Diario Militar [es], a document published in Harper’s Magazine containing photographs and information on the capture and execution of 183 people, and in which he was listed as number 135. From this source, it became known that he had been killed on June 6, 1984, about three weeks after his abduction.[2]

That left plenty of time for torture, but that is not something that we are likely to know about, one way or the other. You will find this brave man’s picture at the top of this post.

These are dark times in the United States. I can usually stop complaining about my problems by reminding myself that they are, after all, First World Problems. I couldn’t get the lane that I wanted at the rifle range; I can’t get my new iPhone to pair with my car’s audio system; ammunition rations are down to three boxes a day again. Now, for the first time in my life, I have real problems. Third World Problems. My country is being ravaged by a disease due to gross presidential incompetence. Worse: a mob just attacked one of the three branches of the national government; the battle flag of the secessionist forces from our very own Civil War was paraded–for the first time ever–in our Capitol building. The attack was encouraged by our very own president, who did not condemn it until it was defeated and the Capitol retaken. It is said that he watched, hopefully, while the attack was happening. I wasn’t there, nor do I know anyone who was; unfortunately, that behavior would be pretty consistent with everything that we have seen from him over the course of the past four years.

Unlike the current president (until noon tomorrow as I write this), I served in the US military. My enlistment contract had an expiration date; my oath of enlistment–to protect the Constitution of the United States of America, from enemies both foreign and domestic–did not. I have my responsibilities. Luis de Lión had his, and I suspect that they required more courage than mine do. Yours might not be the same as either of ours–but, I encourage you to figure out what they are. And to fulfill them.

Ashi waza with zombies

Hike a zombie up on your hip for a big harai goshi, and he’s probably going to bite you in the left tit as he sails right over it. But: sweep his foot, and he’s goin’ down.

We don’t bark as much as we used to.

People have the most ignorant ideas sometimes. Like, take natural selection. Survival of the fittest, right? But, what does “fit” mean? People got so caught up in that whole “nature red in tooth and claw” thing. But, “fitness” is more than, like, Cross-Fit. (“The first rule of Cross-Fit: Always talk about Cross-Fit.”) It’s fitness for an environment, for a context. Resources suddenly get scarce? Fitness can mean being small, needing fewer calories–I bet you don’t see a lot of large terrestrial mammals in your neighborhood. Competition for breeding females just got stiffer? Fitness can mean just looking hotter–peacocks didn’t evolve those big-ass tails because they let you fly better, believe you me. Fitness is a complicated concept, and people have the most ignorant ideas sometimes. They used to, anyways–the people with ignorant ideas are mostly dead now.

We don’t bark as much as we used to. People sometimes punished us if we barked at the wrong times, but a lot of people liked having a barking dog around. Scare away the bad guys, make the neighbors think you’re a badass–always a good thing, right? But: no. Fitness is relative to a context, and contexts change. And that’s when natural selection happens. Your environment changes, and suddenly fitness means something new. Bark at a bad guy, and he’ll probably go away. Bark at a zombie, and it just tells the rest of them where to find you. Get found by a bunch of zombies, and your days of passing on your genes are over.  

People have the most ignorant ideas sometimes.  Like, Chad.  My former master.  I loved him limitlessly and unconditionally.  He had a car.  He learned how to drive before he bought it, right?  He also had a pistol.  He was gonna learn how to use it–after he bought it.  Well… he did get around to buying it.  The night that the thing that apparently used to be an emergency room nurse showed up with a bite missing out of its forearm and an insatiable appetite for human flesh came crashing through the bay window, he didn’t even know how to take the safety off.  Christ…it never even occurred to him that you can usually take care of a lone zombie with a pistol just by SMACKING IT UPSIDE THE FUCKING HEAD WITH IT.  I tried to tell him.  But, he never really thought to listen to other people–certainly not to a Blue Heeler mix.  He can be so frustratingly ignorant.  Well, he used to–the ignorant people are mostly dead now. 

We don’t bark as much as we used to. The thing to be today: a pointer. I used to have this buddy. A German shorthair. His master used to laugh at him because he would point at butterflies. His master used to laugh at him because he would point at his fucking water dish. Now his master is dead. My buddy? Now people bring him bitches in heat. To fuck. Can you imagine people bringing you bitches in heat to fuck? I remember an old Saturday Night Live sketch where John Belushi gets so excited about the idea of being able to walk into an Amsterdam cafe and buy a bowl of hashish that he goes into convulsions and falls off of his chair. That’s how I feel about the idea of people bringing me bitches in heat. To fuck. Bummer that I’m fixed. Lucky unfixed pointers. Lucky goddamn unfixed pointers. Lucky goddamn shitty fucking goddamn unfixed pointers. Lucky goddamn shitty fucking goddamnit goddamnit goddamnit-to-fucking-hell lucky fucking unfixed piece of shit fucking unfixed pointers…. Wait, I gotta pick myself up off the floor…

People have the most ignorant ideas sometimes. Like, take judo. People thought that it would be useless in the case of a zombie apocalypse. Sure–hike a zombie up on your hip for a big harai goshi, and he’s probably going to bite you in the left tit as he sails right over it. But: sweep his foot, and he’s goin’ down–zombies are not super-agile. “Old man’s judo,” they called the ashi waza, the “foot techniques.” But, they’re perfect for escaping from a zombie or five. “You want a real dog, get a Doberman pinscher or a Rottweiller, not a funny-looking Blue Heeler mix.” But Dobies and Rotts–they bark. Blue Heelers? Why the fuck do you think they call us “heelers?” We’re shepherds. We go for the feet. Go for a zombie’s foot, and he’s goin’ down. Dog judo. People are so ignorant sometimes. Well, they used to be–the ignorant ones are dead now.

This is a work of fiction. The zombie apocalypse is not here–yet. Scroll down a bit for demonstrations of the judo techniques that came up in the story.

A nicely-executed harai goshi. Don’t do it to a zombie, though.
A nicely-executed foot sweep. You can do this to zombies until the cows come home. Well… until your Blue Heeler comes home, at any rate.

Featured image source: the Mundo Judo web site.

A paw, a questing nose: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Company”

I’ve read it on a guided missile cruiser; in a sleeping bag on the floor of a just-got-divorced-and-don’t-yet-have-furniture apartment; …

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1968 children’s novel A wizard of Earthsea. A children’s novel, yes, and I first read it as a child. I’ve also read it on watch in the engine room of a guided missile cruiser; stretched out in a sleeping bag on the floor of a just-got-divorced-and-don’t-yet-have-furniture apartment; most recently, deep into my 50s and huddled under a blanket taking refuge from the Colorado deep-winter cold. The children’s novel takes a position on the relationship between language and meaning that has been debated back and forth since Socrates–no wonder I became a linguist.

Before her death in 2018, Le Guin finished a book of poetry: So far so good. (Reminds me of the French joke about the guy falling out a window, with the punchline jusqu’ici, tout va bien–probably not an accident.) Here’s a little gem from it, titled Company:

A paw, a questing nose half waken me,

and I let him get under the covers.

He curls up and purrs himself asleep.

Cats are less troublesome than lovers.

Ursula K. Le Guin, “Company”


  1. Le Guin, writing this at the age of 88, was still thinking about what it’s like to have a man in your bed.
  2. It’s always worth the trouble to read a poem aloud–I didn’t even realize that covers/lovers rhymes until I did so.
  3. Poeticality comes in part from unexpected word combinations. But, “unexpected” is very context-dependent–you wouldn’t be shocked if I used the word alliteration in a post about poetry, but it would probably surprise you if it appeared in an essay about that time I climbed the wall of a ravine to get to a Port-A-Potty. (It didn’t end well.)
  4. Things could be otherwise. Take the last sentence of the poem–Cats are less troublesome than lovers–and put it at the beginning. The result makes every bit as much narrative sense as Le Guin’s version–maybe even more so. But, as a poem, it would kinda suck.
  5. Why, if that last sentence gives you a better narrative at the beginning of the poem, does it give you a better poem when it occurs at the end? I think it’s related to an unexpected word combination. Specifically: when you’ve got a poem that’s mostly monosyllables and so far has had no word over two syllables long, troublesome packs quite a punch. Define the context in in terms of word length, and troublesome stands out quite a bit from a bunch of mono- and bisyllables.
  6. It bears repeating: Le Guin, writing this at the age of 88, was still thinking about what it’s like to have a man in your bed. I wish I’d known her.

Picture source: By Oregon State University – Ursula Le Guin, CC BY-SA 2.0,